Chapter Six

"Please swallow your pride if I have things you need to borrow… for no one can fill those of your needs that you won't let show." Bil Withers 'Lean on Me'

It was very late the next morning when Elia finally woke up, and when she did she immediately wished that she hadn't. Her head felt heavy and fuzzy, and her ankle throbbed. Perhaps she should just tell everyone she was sick? That way, she could remain in bed for the remainder of the day. Immediately, however, Elia dismissed the thought. No, no, that wouldn't do. Today was the day of the ball, and while she knew that Rose and the other servants would see to all of the preparations, Elia enjoyed helping out. Besides, today was Friday and they were waiting for her.

She swung her legs over the bed and sat there for a few moments, mentally preparing herself for the ensuing pain her ankle would experience once she left the bed. True to prediction, she stood up and steadied herself for a moment, wincing as she tried putting pressure on her mangled ankle. Taking a deep breath, Elia stepped forward… and promptly fell over.

For a while Elia merely laid there, her cheek pressed to the cool floor. In a way, it was tempting just to fall back asleep right there and then and just escape from what was going on around her. Raoul and Caralina would be here for six months—could she endure pain like this for a half a year? Or would she instead have to be constantly on guard in order to ensure that she would never be alone with, let alone talk with, Raoul? Thinking back to his kindness from the night before, Elia knew that such a task would be near impossible. She may be able to avoid him, but it would be so unforgivably rude, and she somehow knew, instinctively, that Raoul would seek her out eventually.

Those thoughts would have to wait, she thought, pushing them to the back of her mind. She would figure out everything in time—right now, however, she needed to get dressed somehow. The servants were not expected in the mornings after festivities because their masters usually stayed in bed all day, recovering. Elia did not expect her maid until later in the afternoon to help prepare her for the ball. Until then, however, she would have to dress herself. Limping to her armoire, Elia pulled out an older, simple gown that was a soft pink color. It took some careful maneuvering on her part, but eventually Elia found herself fully dressed and ready to go.

First, however, she needed to go to the kitchens and satisfy her ravenous stomach. Last night, it was largely filled with wine, not food, and she thus needed to remedy that. Besides, she never ate lunch with her family on Fridays. Her father and brother did not like it, but they did not interfere, and her mother and sister did not care about her absence, predictably.

When she entered the kitchen, Elia found chaos. Servants were running around, calling orders and responses, and every inch of counter and table space was being used. Scents of sweets and meats and fruits and cheeses filled the air. Blinking, she fleetingly thought that perhaps this was not the best day to dine alone. Despite all of that, a servant, noticing her presence, gave her a large basket filled with food. Rosie's doing. Elia fleetingly wondered how she was to carry all of this with her ankle still hurting, but gratefully took the basket anyway. "Please tell Rose 'thank you'," Elia told the servant. "And thank you as well, for giving it to me." The servant in question was a young lad, no more than twelve years old, and he flushed at her praise.

"Of course, Your Highness," he murmured. Elia sent him another smile and was on her way.

Normally Elia enjoyed her walk down to the bustling village, preferring to blend in with the townsfolk and not make a huge scene. It was easier for her to do because she was smaller and usually hid behind a large, sensible, wool cloak, but for her father and brother, they were easily distinguishable and the people adored them. As for her mother and sister, they never went into general public but Elia imagined that if they did, they would be easily recognizable due to their beauty.

However, today was not a normal day and Elia knew that while walking down the hill would be all right, she would eventually have to walk back up. And she knew that there would be no Prince Raoul to help her today.

The easiest thing to do would be to take a carriage, but Elia hated the pretentiousness of them, and she felt uncomfortable showcasing her status on such casual trips.

Heading to the stables, Elia decided that taking a horse was her best bet. She did not care for the idea, but she felt it would be best. Now. If only she could figure out how she could get onto the horse and off of it—with her picnic basket—without help.

She would think of something, but standing around was just wasting precious time. Because of the ball she would not be able to stay as long and she didn't want to disappoint them. The stable hands brought Elia her mare, Diana, to her, saddled and ready to go.

"Do you need any help, Your Highness?" came a voice next to her. Turning, Elia saw Philip, a member of her father's guard, and, on Friday's, her own personal guard.

Charles and James were loath to let Elia travel on her own, even to the village, and agreed to her visits on the condition that Philip go with her. Elia accepted on the grounds that she liked Philip; he was discreet and kind and did not mind any of her eccentricities. They were around the same age and, as his mother was a kitchen servant, they, along with James, played together as children. At times, Elia found it hard to believe that her scrawny childhood friend with the golden curls grew up to be a respected and talented palace guard, despite his "pretty-boy" angelic good looks and slim physique. Nonetheless, Elia trusted Philip with her life and did not mind him coming with her. He stayed far enough in the background so as not to make her feel uncomfortable, but close enough that she was always aware of where he was.

"That would be lovely," Elia said gratefully. "If you could take the basket and help me up, that would be splendid."

Philip could not help but roll his eyes. "If you rode like other ladies did, you know, I doubt you would be having these problems."

"Oh, hush you," Elia snipped back good-naturedly. "We both know that that is a lie. Besides, sitting side-saddle is dreadfully uncomfortable, not to mention much more difficult than riding normally. Your balance is totally off-kilter the entire time!"

Both of her parents, actually, despaired that Elia refused to ride side-saddled. James, of course, found it greatly amusing, since he was the one to teach her how to ride. Elia rode like a man, insisting that her virtue was still in tact; her skirts were long enough that no one could see anything improper.

Philip gave her a look. He was used to these outbursts. "Let's just get you on the horse." Elia put the basket on the ground and braced herself. In order to swing herself up, she would need to put her right foot on the rung on the saddle, which, for a brief moment, would cause all of her weight to be on her left foot. She prayed desperately that her knees wouldn't buckle from the pain.

"Philip," she called sweetly. "Come assist me please?" If he was there to steady her, then she should be fine.

Dutifully, Philip came. Elia, quickly, put her right food in the rung, unable to hide a grimace as she did so. Philip frowned, but quickly he laced his hands and helped her swing her left food over the mare. Once she was secure, he handed her the basket, which she set next to the horn of the saddle.

"Are you going to ride or walk, Philip?" Elia wanted to know.

Philip thought. "I think it would be best if I walked," he said finally. "Less conspicuous that way."

Elia wanted to roll her eyes at his protectiveness, but held herself back. "If you insist," she said cheerfully. "I can't always promise I won't gallop off, however."

Philip gave her a look as they passed the castle walls. "I don't expect anything less," he said grimly. "Just try your best, hmm, Your Highness?"

"We shall see," she called merrily, feeling significantly better now that she was physically away from the castle.

Riding into the market, she warmly greeted the street vendors and buyers by name, and in turn they waved back. It was rare for people to bow to her; they all understood, after many protests, that Elia detested such protocol. Some still insisted on bowing, although most people, still anxious to show their respect and loyalty, bowed their heads with a slight dip to their knees whenever she passed.

Elia usually spent more time talking with everyone, listening to their problems and concerns and the like, but today, due to the ball, her visit would be much shorter, and there was one stop that she could not miss. Nevertheless, she made her way through the market slowly, so Philip could walk with her and to make sure the other villagers did not feel as though she was ignoring them today.

"Headed directly to the house, Your Highness?" murmured Philip at her side.

"Yes," replied Elia. "I don't believe I shall stay very long, unfortunately. I am sorry, Philip."

Another reason why Elia specifically liked Philip as her accompanying guard was because his sister lived next door to the place she visited and Elia permitted him to visit his sister when she came to the village. Philip, who only saw his sister on these trips, cherished them. He lived in the castle and although his duty shifts were not completely time-consuming, Philip did not have much time to spend with family.

"It's quite all right, Princess," Philip said, a bright smile on his face. "It is generous that I have any time at all to spend with them, so I am grateful for whatever I can get."

Elia smiled back, appreciative of Philip's optimistic nature. She wished that she could have some of that as well.

They could see their destination in the distance. It was a humble house, two stories and plainly built. It was obviously old, but it was clear that someone was desperately trying to keep the house as respectable as possible. The yard was tidy and there were scores of flowers in the yard, reminding Elia of gardening adventures from the previous spring.

Philip helped Elia off of the horse. As soon as she was securely on the ground, she could not hold back another grimace. She completely forgot about her ankle. Philip saw and raised an eyebrow. "All right there, Princess?"

Elia stiffened slightly, cursing her inability to mask her discomfort. "Quite all right, Philip," she said, trying to keep her voice as cheery as possible. "Just haven't ridden in a bit. My limbs are a bit sore." It was a weak excuse, but luckily, a believable one.

As she limped to the house, she failed to notice that Philip did not believe her excuse for a moment. Nonetheless, he held his tongue, deciding to go next door and visit his family. He would return in an hour and perhaps then he could wrestle the truth out of her.

Elia, finally at the doorstep, rapt on the door three times in quick succession. She heard squeals of laughter from the inside, and when the door was opened, seven pairs of bright eyes stared back at her.

"Elia, Elia!" The children squealed enthusiastically at the sight of her.

"Hello, my dears!" Laughed Elia as they surrounded her with squeals and hugs. "How are you this fine day?"

A chorus of different replies came back to her and, still laughing, Elia managed to get herself through the doorway. "Goodness, not all at once!" She exclaimed. "Now. Who's hungry? I've brought lunch! Go set the table and wash up while I lay everything out, all right?"

A flurry of activity ensued as the children, anxious for lunch, sped off in different directions.

Elia began to unpack lunch. The meal was simple enough, with bread, cheese, meats, fruit, and milk, but Elia knew it was desperately needed. The children's father was a glassmaker and, although he was talented, demand for his work was not consistent and he struggled to support his large family. His wife had died several years prior whilst giving birth to their youngest child, and it was hard for him to work and look after the children. Elia discovered them by chance; it was, in fact, Philip's sister who told her about them one day. Elia, sympathetic, made it her own personal mission to help the seven children- Harriet, Sally, David, George, Doug, Sarah, and Barry—and become an elder sister figure to them.

She visited them once a week, every Friday, bringing them food and playing with them during the afternoons. They planted gardens, played in the nearby stream, and walked around the village. The villagers jokingly made the parallel between Elia and the children and a mother duck and her chicks, waddling behind her in a straight line.

Today, however, Elia did not have much time with her little ducklings since she had to go back to the castle soon. Nevertheless, she prepared their lunch nicely and sat down with them to eat at their large, circular glass table that their father constructed.

"Is it true that today is the day of the ball?" Sarah, the youngest girl, asked with wide eyes, a rare feat for the perpetually sleepy child.

"It is," Elia replied with a smile. "Although I daresay it shall be incredibly tedious."

"What!" David, the eldest son, sputtered in disbelief. "How can it be? Won't there be many beautiful people there? And the Prince and Princess from Fraanc and Italle will be there as well!" David was forever the inquisitive one. Whether he learn his facts from books or people, he prided himself on being well informed.

"Yes," conceded Elia. "That is true. This ball is being held in their honor, after all."

"And isn't that Prince Raoul terribly handsome?" Harriet, the eldest and most easy going child, said wistfully. "I hear that he is."

Elia could not stop her cheeks from becoming pink. "Aye—he. He is at that," she admitted. "However, my sister is quite enamored with him. I am sure that all of his attentions shall be on her tonight."

George, ever so serious said, frowning, "Well why would he? You are prettier than Princess Victoria."

Elia blinked. No one had ever said that to her before. "I—why thank you, George. That is quite kind. But to be sure, Princess Victoria is quite beautiful."

George looked at her. "Not as beautiful as you," he said in the firm, sure way of a child, and went back to dipping his bread in his milk.

The table momentarily descended into silence but almost immediately recovered. The children, happy at such a delicious meal, were content, blissfully chattering away while Elia watched them, a smile on her face. Eventually, however, the meal ended and once the leftovers were packed away for another time, Elia prepared to leave.

"Oh, don't go!" the children begged her as Phillip led her little mare to her. "Please stay a bit longer!"

Elia, looking away so she could hide her grimaces from the children as she got onto the horse, failed to notice Phillip frowning at her. "I told you why I had to go," she said, faking a small laugh as she turned back to face the children. "I need to go put on my party dress so I can go to the ball! How about this? I will stay longer than usual next week and tell you all about the ball. How does that sound?"

The girls, standing on the porch, hopped up and down in excitement, squealing, while the boys pretended to look disinterested, but their eyes were too bright with interest. "Yes, yes!"

Elia laughed again, a real, true laugh that time, and waved, letting Phillip slowly lead her away until the little house with the flower beds and the creaky porch was just a speck in the distance. She gaily told Phillip on all of the children's doings, since he normally asked and took interest. She found it a bit odd that he did not reply at all, walking ahead in complete silence. Eventually she fell silent as well, wondering at his change in nature. It was at that time when Phillip, staring straight ahead and his expression stony, asked her abruptly, "What did Victoria do to you this time?"

Startled, Elia protested, "Phillip, she didn't—"

Scowling, Phillip cut her off, "Don't lie to me," he hissed. "All of these years, Eliana, you've been lying to everyone! To me, to your father, to your brother—about all of the accidents that happen to you. The slips, the falls, the ruined gowns and the twisted ankles…even if your father and brother are too blind, too naïve, too busy to see it—I do. The guards do. The servants do. We know what Victoria does to you. It needs to stop. Why don't you say anything?"

Elia sat, stunned. She had never heard Phillip speak so candidly, so angrily to her—or to anyone—before. With a sinking heart, she realized that she had not been discreet enough, that people knew about what Victoria did to her. And it scared her. She knew that if Victoria caught wind of anything, what would happen to her next time would be worse—much worse. What lie would she concoct to tell Phillip? Her mind raced.

And yet… Elia was tired. She was tired of hiding and of lying. And what use was it to lie to Phillip? He was an old friend and if she lied to him again—she didn't know what he would do. He definitely would not believe her.

She sighed and told him the whole story, not bothering to leave anything out, but blushing when recalling how Prince Raoul had found her and carried her to her room. "It's… it's a lot better now," Elia said, lifting up her skirt immodestly to show Phillip her injury.

Phillip, silent, assessed the injury with his eyes, though her bandages from the night before remained on the ankle. "Dancing tonight is going to be a nightmare," he told her bluntly. "Any person with a brain would tell you that you need to stay off of it." His clear blue eyes looked up at her, sharp and knowing. "But I realize that you need to make sure that everything is normal, so that can't be helped." By this time they were at the stables. Delicately, Phillip lifted Elia off of the horse and, gallantly giving her his arm, let her lean on him while he escorted her inside. To Elia's surprise, he led her to the kitchens, still a flurry of activity. He led her to a wooden table and bench and forced her to sit. "Wait here," he said, then turning to disappear into the flurry of servants rushing around.

Striving to make herself useful, she turned to the servants busily slicing vegetables. Taking a knife and a cucumber, Elia happily began to chop, the mindless activity distracting her from Phillip's disconcerting manner.

Shortly after, Phillip returned with Rose in tow. Rolling her eyes, Rosie said, "It figures. You leave the girl alone for a minute and she finds a way to help."

Elia frowned. "What's Rosie doing here?" Another person in on her secret.

Phillip gave her a look. "Why do you think?" he shot back as Rosie kneeled before Elia, unexpectedly taking her ankle in hand and beginning to unroll the bandages.

"What—" Elia protested.

"Oh, hush you," Rosie said, taking the herbs off of the swollen ankle. "Oh, dear," she exclaimed softly once she saw the damage. Her eyes filled with tears. Phillip, behind her, swore.

Elia swallowed. Was it really that bad? "Is it—is it infected?" She whispered.

Rosie shook her head. "Luckily you placed the right herbs on here, My Lady," she said. "Otherwise it would be. It looks unseemly now, but… if you take care of yourself, it should be just fine." Tears slipped down Rosie's face. "We all knew it was bad but we never imagined that she would…"

"I'm sorry that anyone ever had an inkling of this," Elia said resolutely. "This is my burden to bear and mine alone."

"No, it's not!" Phillip burst in angrily. "Why haven't you told anyone? The King? Prince James?"

"You think Victoria hasn't thought of that!" Elia said harshly. "You think she hasn't promised more trouble for me if I told anyone? And when I have—the next time has been more harsh and cruel. Telling them is pointless. That's why I just avoid Victoria, that's why I go to meetings with Father and James—if I stay by them and away from her, everyone is better off that way. Last night was just the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding."

" 'Unfortunate misunderstanding'," scoffed Rosie. "You mean that Victoria is just feeling threatened that Prince Raoul may favor you over her."

"Her fears are completely unfounded," Elia shook her head. "But Victoria doesn't view it that way."

"Considering what you told me about last night," Phillip arched an eyebrow at her, "perhaps Victoria has more to worry about than you think. It seems that this Prince Raoul is either an extremely chivalrous individual or he likes you."

"That's ridiculous, Phillip," hissed Elia in pain as Rosie began to rub alcohol on her wound, hoping to draw out any toxins. "Prince Raoul is kind but he is not in any way particular to me. I am sure that all day today, with my absence, Victoria is digging her claws into Raoul."

Rosie sighed. "Well, then, I hope that this Prince Raoul is as smart as I believe him to be and sees her true character." Rosie began to apply some medicine and wrap up Elia's mangled ankle, eyes tearing again at the thought of what her poor little girl had endured, had been enduring for years. Would no one realize what was going on between Victoria and Elia?

Phillip snorted. "I doubt it," he said cynically.

Elia couldn't help but agree.

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When Raoul awoke that morning, the sun was already high in the sky, to his utter embarrassment. Had he missed breakfast? For some odd reason, he had a pounding headache. He hadn't even drank much the night before. Sitting up, he looked around the room. His man servant must have come in early—the clothes he had hastily stripped off the night before were gone, and the window was open, the crisp morning air washing away any other scent. Raoul made his way to the water basin, filled with sweet-smelling soap. He washed his hands and face, gratefully splashing the cool water on himself to wake himself up.

What had happened last night? He thought to himself. It was like some bizarre dream. Had he really carried Inglin's youngest princess up the staircase and—he blushed at the thought—nearly tucked her into bed? It seemed like a fantastical dream. He vaguely remembered smelling blood but shook his head. Everything seemed like such a blur as it was. That was probably a dream. What reason, after all, would he smell blood?

Unless… he thought back to Princess Eliana, whose anguished, tear-streaked face seemed imprinted on his mind. She was in pain last night, to be sure, but it was from the alcohol and her aching limbs, right? Or was there something she wasn't telling him? Raoul supposed that if she was injured he would surely be able to find out today. Bandages and wounds were visible, and if he could not see them, then he was sure that her injuries would manifest themselves in her physical manner.

With that resolve, Raoul dressed quickly and made his way down to the great hall. There, he discovered, to his dismay, that he had skipped breakfast entirely and barely made it to lunch. His face flushed as he entered the dining room, berating himself for being so rude as to miss breakfast without informing his hosts. However, he was pleasantly surprised to see that the other members of the royal family were suffering from the night before as well. King Charles kept yawning and massaging his temples; Prince James could barely keep his eyes open; and, glancing at his sister, found that she too looked quite sleepy still. Queen Cinthia looked fine, although Raoul knew she hadn't drunk much, and Princess Victoria looked like perfection. Raoul made his greetings, wondering where Elia was. Was she in her room sick? Had someone checked up on her? Why was no one else speculating?

"Where is Princess Eliana?" He asked casually as he began to butter a roll.

It was Charles who replied: "Eliana usually does not dine with us Friday afternoons; she likes going into the market and converse with the people. She shall be back in time for the ball tonight." Charles chuckled. "I'm afraid we all drank a little more than we should have last night, but, I assure you that everything—and everyone—will be perfect come ball time."

Raoul almost grimaced. He hated parties. Glancing at Caralina, however, he saw that she visibly brightened. She adored those kinds of things.

"Do you enjoy dancing, Crown Prince?" came a throaty voice next to him. Turning he saw that it was Victoria, her eyes blinking prettily at him, though her stare was much more heated and searching than he was expecting.

"Um," he said elegantly. "Well, you know, I'm—I'm proficient at it. Skill wise. But in terms of enjoyment—um." He didn't want to disappoint her, but was getting so flustered by her that he couldn't keep track of what he was saying.

To her credit, Victoria kept up a smiling and unblinking façade, silently encouraging him to finish his thought.

Raoul cleared his throat and willed himself to finish, despite the discomfort. "In terms of enjoyment—I am. Ahem. – Learning to enjoy it." At this, Caralina shot her brother a disbelieving look, uncaring as to who saw it.

"I hope that you will be so kind as to claim a few spots on my dance card," Victoria murmured, her eyes modestly down although her words were almost obscenely forward.

"I—of course," Raoul said, shocked at her bold words. "I would be most honored to—to dance with you."

Satisfied, Victoria beamed at him. She kept up her conversation with Raoul, completely monopolizing it. Not that anyone minded. King Charles looked ready to fall asleep; James and Caralina were attempting a conversation despite their headaches, and Queen Cinthia was content to retreat into her own little world, eating quietly and steadily.

The rest of lunch went by quietly, with Raoul incredibly uncomfortable and aware of Victoria's intentions. Isn't this what he wanted, though? Didn't he come to Inglin with the intention to court Victoria and create a political alliance?

To be sure, Victoria was beautiful. Her manners were impeccable, if a little bold, and her attentions were flattering. She had all of the grace and poise and beauty a queen should have. But Raoul found that he was more of his mother's son than he thought, and unexpectedly realized that those traits were not enough. He realized that he needed to get to know Victoria more, and the ball was a perfect way of doing so. Perhaps Victoria's coercing him into dancing with her was her attempt of trying to get to know him, too. Well, he would not disappoint her. Now with a clear goal in mind, Raoul smiled, now genuinely looking forward to the ball.

A few hours later found Raoul in front of the mirror, being fussed over by various man servants. He was rather unaccustomed to such attention—at home he only had one personal butler, a quiet, unassuming man named Henri. He would have normally brought Henri along with him but Raoul let the man stay in Fraanc since his wife was to give birth in the upcoming months. It would be cruel to separate a man from his family like that, and so Raoul went to Inglin unattended. James, after having heard of Raoul's plight, supplied him with more than enough butlers and attendants to make Raoul's head spin with all of their chatter. He had never felt so groomed in his life. His hair had been trimmed and touched with a hint of mousse, his shoes shined to perfection, his clothes pressed impeccably… granted, in Fraanc fashion was incredibly important, but Raoul and his family were never ones to follow fashion to the letter.

Nevertheless, he looked rather considerably better than he ever had in his life. He suspected that someone found his coat—a nice, charcoal grey, with dark buttons—and sent it to a tailor, although how they got his measurements so perfect was beyond him. He was a bit nervous about tonight and about whether or not he'd impress Victoria. Of course, an anxious voice in the back of his head reminded him, if Victoria was the sort of person he wanted to marry then he wouldn't have to worry about impressing her. Maybe she'd like him just for who he was.

Trying to quench any doubt, Raoul took one last look in the mirror, and, with hardened resolve, left the room to fetch his sister.

Raoul found Caralina in her room. He was to escort her to the ball, and they would be announced together as the guests of honor. He stopped in the doorway, watching his sister, who had not yet seen him, put final touches on her ensemble for the night.

She was looking especially resplendent that night, wearing a dark red gown that suited her color well. Her cheeks were rosy with delight, and Raoul could tell his sister was especially excited about something. Usually it had to do with some suitor, but Raoul could not recall his sister in the company of any particular lord at Inglin's court… unless he counted Prince James among them.

Raoul tried not to look to sly as he asked, "Looking forward to tonight, I presume?"

Startled, Caralina whirled around. "You sneaky thing!" she admonished, but a smile was on her face. The two siblings surveyed each other. "Aren't you looking dashing tonight?" A knowing grin lit her face. "Don't worry, dearest brother, I am certain that you shall impress a certain Princess Victoria with your polished look."

Resolutely trying not to blush, Raoul playfully narrowed his eyes in mock-annoyance, and realized that since she was getting straight to the point, he might as well, too. "And I'm certain, sister dear, that your dress will awe a certain Prince James."

To Raoul's delight, Caralina's cheeks deepened in color, but her eyes did not stray from his as she turned her nose up and tried to act offended. Quickly, however, she deflated and both siblings began to laugh. "Oh, hush you," Caralina finally said good-naturedly. "Goodness, what a silly pair we are! If only Mama and Father could see us at this moment. Heaven knows what they would think of us."

He knew what she was really trying to say, however, and he offered his arm to her gallantly, saying softly, "I'm sure they would be very proud of us. Both of us."

Giving him a winning smile, Caralina hooked her arm into his, and the two siblings left the room and prepared themselves of the daunting task of being introduced into Inglish Noble Society.

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Author's Note: Hello everyone! I'm terrible sorry I've been so lax in updating. For whatever reason, writing this story became akin to torturous for me. I started a new Harry Potter story instead, eager to immerse myself in a new universe. However, I'm back now and back in the flow of things! I made this chapter significantly longer than the previous one in order to make up my absence and previous short chapter. I definitely won't get this story done by the end of summer, as I planned, but I hope to crank out another chapter before summer is over! We shall see.

Thank you so much, everyone, for sticking with this story! I promise you won't regret it.

M. Elena

21 August 2011